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Scars of the heart: The Ron Corbin story

Years of survivor guilt came to a head in the penning of a letter found one night while browsing the Internet

Many a cop has said that police work is hours of boredom, followed by moments of sheer terror. Sometimes it's followed by years of physical and emotional pains, or scars that never heal. Ron Corbin is not only this type of police officer, but one of the strongest and bravest you will ever meet.

Ron served two tours in Vietnam as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot. He never turned down a mission that was assigned to him. Although he was never wounded, he lost 27 friends whose names are posted on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

When he was discharged, he tested for and was accepted by the Los Angeles Police Department. After doing time in the street, he was accepted into the department’s aviation unit. He quickly rose to be an instructor pilot for the department and lobbied for better equipment for the air crews, including fireproof flight suits and safety helmets.

Of Course I’m Going to Stay
On June 11, 1976, Ron and his partner — Student Pilot / Air Observer Jeffrey Lindenberg — prepared for a training flight in a Bell 47G-5 helicopter, the model you see in the television show MASH. They did a pre-flight safety inspection of the aircraft and prepared for takeoff.

Jeff flew the aircraft and they were airborne over Los Angeles. A short distance from the airport, they had a catastrophic mechanical failure while practicing a landing approach.

They had no time or altitude to auto-rotate down to a landing pad on top of the mountain. One of the landing skids on the helicopter came down on the cement landing pad as it was supposed to. The other skid did not clear the cement. It hit the pad and sent the helicopter careening 162 feet down the side of the mountain in a ball of flames created by the exploding fuel tanks consuming their full load of fuel.

Two hikers removed Ron’s badly burned body from the helicopter. His non fire retardant suit had burned into his body, and his eye protection melted over his eyes onto his face. Jeff could not be seen in the wreckage, where he had become trapped by the flaming fuel tank.

A Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter transported Ron to the hospital where he was treated for burns covering 70 percent of body, 62 percent of the burns being second and third degree burns. People wondered if Ron would survive the injuries and the psychological aftermath. 

This was start of the many types of pain he would have to endure for years to come.

At the hospital, the attending physician asked Ron’s wife Kathy if she was going to stay. When she said she would stay at the hospital, the doctor clarified his question with another — are you going to stay in the marriage?

Her response was, “I love him. Of course I’m going to stay.”

Years of Survivor Guilt
The doctor informed Kathy that many spouses can’t deal with the trauma of burns and leave. Her statement sets the course of treatment both physically and psychologically.

Although Ron knew deep down that Jeff could not have survived the crash, it was still a devastating shock and pain to be told that Jeff was dead. What hurts more is years of survivor guilt. Why Jeff and not me? He has a wife and a baby daughter. Could I have done something different? The answer is always no, but a survivor will continue to ask the question over and over again looking for the answer he wants to hear.

Many times a survivor doesn’t understand that talking about the incident is a way of closing the incident.

Explaining to others that one did all he could helps the survivor realize he is correct, even though the outcome remains the same. Ron wanted to tell Lesa, Jeff’s wife, that Jeff did nothing wrong or caused the accident. Ron wanted to let her know that he, too, did everything he could do to avert the disaster. It simply was beyond anything humanly possible to prevent the disaster or change its outcome.

Lesa had more than she could handle at the moment.

Jeff was dead.

She was a widow.

She had an infant daughter to raise alone.

She had to deal with the department, the pension board, the press and an aching heart. She could not be part of Ron’s recovery. She had to struggle with her own. The rebuff hurt. It was hard to understand from Ron’s point of view, but understandable if you’re a new widow.

Every department has strange retirement procedures. As badly injured and scarred as Ron was, it took three trips to the pension board during the course of five years to decide that Ron’s career as a police officer was over. All he asked of Workers Compensation was free medical treatment for life to deal with his injuries and future complications.

They agreed. But, when he learned he needed treatment for spinal injuries received in the crash, he found out that yes, he did have free medical treatment for life — if the treatment was related only to burns. He was on his own for spinal problems.

Although physically limited, Ron continued to work. He never gave up on being a provider for his family. After retirement, he continued his education, receiving degrees in interesting curriculums; a BA in Child Development, an MS in Elementary Education, and a PhD in Security Administration. It took a lot of courage to go back to school as an “old timer.”

A 30 year old, compared to students recently out of high school. It also took a lot of courage to wear a JOBST burn suit to class, scars showing, constantly in pain and stared at by the campus population. However, Ron finished his education and achieved the goals he set for himself.

On to Las Vegas Metro
Ron eventually moved to Las Vegas, where he went to work as a civilian crime prevention specialist for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Later he became training manager for the police academy, a job in which he excels.  He also never gave up the hope of eventually talking to Lesa about that night.

After the 9/11 attacks on this country, Las Vegas Police Sergeant Randy Sutton requested story submissions from police officers for a book, True Blue. The profit from the sales would go to the families of the police officers killed in the devastating attacks. 

Ron had a story to share, not only with the readers but with Lesa. He wrote an open letter to Lesa, but instead of mailing it to her published it in the book. Offers were made to deliver the letter to Lesa, but Ron declined the offer; if Lesa was to read the letter, somehow Lesa and the story would come together.

If you at home have Google or other search engines, it’s fun to run your name through and see where it comes up. Lesa was on such an expedition playing on the computer. Lo and behold, her name and Jeff’s appeared on the screen connected to the book — True Blue and Ron’s open letter to Lesa.

Divine intervention had finally taken place. After reading the letter, Lesa was now ready to meet and talk to Ron. Time does not heal all wounds, but it helps ease some of the pain. After 33 years the two of them met and talked and talked and talked.

The next time they met, Kathy also met Lesa. They too talked and a sense of healing was happening for everyone. After all, healing is a family affair. Lesa’s daughter Tina, now a young woman, met Ron and asked questions about the father she never knew. She read the story in True Blue and wanted a copy of the book, but it was not available. Ron gave her one of his copies. She in turn gave the book as a gift on Father’s Day to her stepfather, the only father she really ever knew, also a Los Angeles Police Officer.

Looking to the Future
The psychological healing for Ron began and continues today, but it will never be a complete healing of the physical injuries. His skin feels sizes too small for his body when the scars constrict.

It’s kind of like trying to put a size-eleven foot into a size-nine shoe.

Keeping scars moist is difficult when you live in the desert. Internal organs are overworked from years of trying to clear the body of toxins breathed in or absorbed through burnt tissues. It certainly takes a toll on a person victimized by fate and mechanics so many years ago, but, it doesn’t slow Ron down. He smiles and laughs when he talks to you.

He has a twinkle in his eyes when he shows photos of his lovely wife Kathy, his handsome sons, Jeff and Steve, and his beautiful daughter, Kim.

He works hard to make sure that new recruits learn not only how to be police officers, but how to survive as police officers.

Ron no longer looks to the past with questions. He looks to the future with answers for himself and others. 

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